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Food for the Aging Mind

Community Contributed

By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources

Memory loss for the 77 million baby boomers can be very worrisome. Remembering friends’ names, or what you did yesterday can put you in a tailspin, but what we eat can definitely help to fend-off memory loss. Serious deficiencies in vitamin B-12 and iron can lead to impaired cognitive functions due to memory and nerve fiber complications. We use our cognitive functions by using simple as well as complex information to meet the challenges of daily living.

Wisdom of the day once concluded that our memory wanes as a result of loss of brain cells. Recent research by USDA scientist James Joseph indicates that this is not so, and that the “loss of mental ability may be less due to loss of brain cells than to the cells failure to communicate effectively.” This may sound like splitting hairs, but the main difference is that one can be treated and the other cannot. The protective effect of consuming antioxidants was measured in rats and showed that rats receiving a high-antioxidant diet did not experience the age-related cognitive performance losses compared to rats fed standard chow.

Antioxidants play a vital role between the minute connections of the nerve cells. There’s been long-standing debate whether the brain can regenerate itself into old age through the production of neurons in a process called neurogenesis. Using new technology, research by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego indicated that the brain does indeed regenerate itself, but at a slower rate as we age.  By eating more antioxidants, at least we have an option of preventing or stalling age related memory loss.

Of the fruits shown to have the greatest antioxidant effect, blueberries, black plums, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, avocado, navel orange and red grapes were the highest, in this order. Fruits and vegetables contain some kind of antioxidants and the color of their skin or flesh usually indicate the kind of antioxidants they contain, including yellow and orange for carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthan, and purple and red for polyphenols such as flavanoids, anthocyanins, and lutein. These names may seem Latin to us, but they’re vital to our health. 

Tropical equivalents java plum, jaboticaba, taro, guava, mango, banana, avocado and lilikoi are somewhere on this list. Purple taro, such as the Lehua types and Eleele naioea, are highest in polyphenols, while yellow taro, such as Mana Ulu, contains carotenoids. The take-home message here is that we should eat our fruits and vegetables in excess, five-a-day as the least.

A balanced diet low in fat and high in fruit, vegetables, and fiber, with some complex carbohydrates is still the goal, along with adequate rest and exercise. As the price of food increases, we need to constantly reassess our food dollars so we can get the most for our buck, but the other option is growing many of these. Making slight changes to our diets by eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and yes, chocolate, is all it takes. If I don’t eat enough antioxidants, I may not remember I wrote this a year from now.

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